RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Trump administration has told Congress it does not need to impose new sanctions on Russia, at least for now. The head of Russia's foreign spy service, who was on a U.S. sanctions blacklist, reportedly traveled to the U.S. a few weeks ago and met with top Trump administration intelligence officials. Russia's embassy in Washington acknowledged the visit, saying it was for consultations with U.S. counterparts on the struggle against terrorism. I'm joined now by Peter Harrell. He served in the Obama State Department and helped impose sanctions on Russia back in 2014.
Mr. Harrell, thanks for being with us.
PETER HARRELL: It's great to be on. Thank you.
MARTIN: What can you tell us about Sergey Naryshkin? This is the director of Russia's foreign intelligence who, reportedly, was here just a few weeks ago.
HARRELL: He's a longtime Russian intelligence operative who's obviously, today, most - one of the most senior Russian intelligence operatives. It's not unheard of or unprecedented for top Russian and top American spies to meet. But this is the first time in a very long time that people his rank have been visiting Washington for such consultations.
MARTIN: Earlier this week, Chuck Schumer, top Democrat in the Senate, called Naryshkin's visit a, quote, "serious national security issue." Let's listen to this.
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CHUCK SCHUMER: Which other sanctioned Russian intelligence agency figures has the Trump administration let into our country? And most important, is his visit why the Trump administration decided to forgo sanctions?
MARTIN: How would you answer that, in particular, the last part?
HARRELL: So the last part raises an interesting and sort of doubly awkward point for the Trump administration about the timing of this. Under a law that Congress passed last summer, the Trump administration was supposed to publish a list of prominent Russian officials and Russian oligarchs who are close to Vladimir Putin. And it was also, earlier this week, supposed to begin implementing sanctions that Congress had passed last summer.
And the steps that the Trump administration took to implement both those provisions kind of did the absolute minimum that the law required. So I think the fact the Trump administration was actually supposed to be ratcheting up sanctions on Russia this week make the timing of this visit that - you know, even more awkward than it otherwise would have been.
MARTIN: So is it legal for the Trump administration to not enact more sanctions on Russia? After all, Congress passed a law saying that it had to happen.
HARRELL: So I think what the Trump administration did met the minimum amount required under the law. It clearly did not meet what Congress intended. The list they created happened to exactly match Forbes magazine's list of 96 Russian billionaires, which raises some questions about, you know, what's behind the list and what the Trump administration was doing with the list. But it is a list. I think you have to say...
MARTIN: But they didn't establish any punitive measures against the people on the list.
HARRELL: Yeah, so the law did not require punitive measures at the current time. It was intended as a kind of name-and-shame exercise to figure out who, in Russia, is really quite close to Vladimir Putin. But the list they published didn't give any information about these people at all.
MARTIN: Do you think the U.S. runs the risk - does the Trump administration run a risk, create a national security issue by not getting tougher on Russia, by not imposing new sanctions in this moment?
HARRELL: Well, you know, just earlier this week, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in an interview that he fully expected Russia to try to intervene in the U.S. midterm elections in 2018, though he also said he thought we were improving our election systems. But we need to be sending a very tough, very strong deterrent message to Moscow. And I worry that the actions taken earlier this week just don't send that kind of a message.
MARTIN: Peter Harrell was deputy assistant secretary for counter threat finance and sanctions during the Obama administration. Thanks so much for your time this morning.
HARRELL: Thank you.
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